My Top 10 Tools for Learning

Number 10 by Flickr user Downing Street, CC licensed

Number 10 by Flickr user Downing Street, CC licensed

Jane Hart does the educational technology community a big favour by compiling top 10 lists of learning tools which are send to her by educational professionals from around the world. She creates a top 100 list that is an interesting reflection of current (and past) popular technology in education and learning.

Each year you get a chance to update your own list. I haven’t done that this year, so here goes:

Moodle – This open source course management system is my bread and butter and has led me into the free software world. Its community of teachers and its enlightened leadership is second to none.
Google Reader – The only way that I am able to keep up with the things that I want to read. Outsourcing my subscriptions and read/unread statusses to Google makes it possible for me to use my laptop, my cellphone or any random computer and see the same information. I just wish there was an open source project that would do the same and could run on my own server.
  1. Moodle – This open source course management system is still very much my bread and butter and has led me into the free software world. Its community of teachers and its enlightened leadership is second to none.
  2. Google Reader – The only way that I am able to keep up with the things that I want to read. Outsourcing my subscriptions and read/unread statusses to Google makes it possible for me to use my laptop, my cellphone or any random computer and see the same information.
  3. Ubuntu – My operating system of choice. Not only does it give me the freedom to use it how I want, it is also the source of much learning about how computers work. I see it as a critical enabler.
  4. Google Search – Still the best search technology around. I have a couple of stock queries that I do all the time like “better than x” if I want to find an alternative to x and I can usually find what I need in one or two queries.
  5. Wikipedia – More and more the easiest way to find a piece of factual information. I use a lot of materials from the Wikimedia Commons in most things that I create. Wikipedia has been decisive in many kitchen table arguments.
  6. WordPress – I have been blogging for over a year now and the process of writing for an audience has forced me to think deeper about my profession. Writing blogs could a central part of many courses. It really is a heavily underutilised pedagogical tool. I have to admit I don’t run my own installation, but trust the excellent WordPress.com service.
  7. Chromium – Most of the work that on do on my computer is done in a browser window. Google’s open source effort is now my default browser. This is mainly because of it’s amazing speed and the Omnibox. Read this blog post for more of my reasons.
  8. LAMP = Apache, MySQL, PHP – This technology makes it trivial for a non-programmer like me to create my own tools that do what I need them do. Using the APIs of the different web services I can create my own mashups.
  9. Youtube – This has become an indispensable resource. Stuck in a level on a Nintendo DS game? Type the games name and a level to see a walk through. There are endless tutorials on anything that you might want to learn.
  10. Delicious – The social bookmarking site not only remembers all I have seen that is interesting on the net, but it is also an excellent way of finding many good sites on a topic. My slowly expanding network of del.icio.us friend tag interesting pages for me to look at.

It wasn’t intentional, but I now notice that the only things that are not web applications are an operating and a browser (the bare essentials). That must be of some significance!

Why Chromium is Now My Primary Browser

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. For this post we agreed to include our personal browser histories in the post. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

Chromium Logo

Chromium Logo

If you are not interested in Browsers and/or usability, I would suggest you don’t bother to read this post.

I cannot exactly remember the first time I used the Internet. It probably was in 1996 in the library at the Universiteit Utrecht. I wasn’t particularly aware of the browser I was using, but I am quite sure that is was Netscape Navigator with which I did the Altavista searches. I used Netscape throughout my education, only to switch to Internet Explorer 5 when I got my own computer with Windows 98 and a dial-up Internet connection. I then used nothing but IE until I read about Mozilla Firefox in a magazine in 2004. Through Moodle I had started appreciating open source software and I liked working with Firefox and its tabs. I stuck with Firefox for a year or so, feeling quite the rebel whenever a site would only load in IE. At some point I noticed how much faster IE was than Firefox. That is when I switched to Avant Browser, a freeware skin around the IE browser engine which included tabs and some other advanced features. A little while later (somewhere in late 2005 or early 2006) I learnt about Opera. Opera had a lot of appeal to me. I liked how their developers pushed so many innovations in the browser space: tabbed browsing, advanced security features and mouse gestures were all inventions of Opera. I loved how fast it was and how many features they managed to cram in so little megabytes. Its cross platform nature allowed me to stay with Opera when I permanently switched to Ubuntu in the summer of 2006. I switched back to Firefox in early 2007 because of my slightly more hardcore open source attitude and because of its wonderful extensions. The latter allowed me to keep all the functionality that I loved about Opera and more.

About two weeks ago I switched to Chromium. This is Google’s relatively new open source offering in the browser market. I am able to automatically download new builds every day through the PPA for Ubuntu Chromium Daily Builds. Even though it is still beta alpha software, it is highly usable.

So why did I switch? I think there are three reasons:

1. Performance
Since a couple of months my private computing is done with a Samsung NC10. This Intel Atom based netbook is slightly underpowered. You really notice this when you are doing things like recoding a video or doing some CPU intensive image editing. I also noticed it terribly in Firefox. Things like Google Reader, DabbleDB (watch that 8 minute demo!) and the WordPress admin interface were nearly unusable. A cold start of Firefox (the 2.x version that comes with Ubuntu 9.04) takes nearly a minute. Chromium on the other hand starts up in a couple of seconds and is very spiffy with Javascript-heavy web-apps.

I tried to quantify my unmistakable feelings with some benchmarking. I used Peacekeeper, but Firefox could not finish the benchmark and would crash! I then used the Sunspider Javascript benchmark and got a total score of 3488.8ms for Chromium and a total score of 18809.6ms for Firefox. This means that in certain cases Chromium would load something in less than one fifth of the time that Firefox 2.x will load it.

While writing this post I decided to try installing Firefox 3.5 (without add-ons) and see how that would perform. After a sudo apt-get install firefox-3.5 I could start Firefox by selecting “Shiretoko Web Browser” in the “Internet” menu. The total score was 5781.2ms, a major improvement, but still more than one and half times slower than Chromium. Its interface is also still less responsive than I would like it to be.

Another nice aspect about Chromium’s performance is that each tab is its own process. This so called Multi Process Architecture isolates problem webpages so that one Flash page crashing does not affect the other browser tabs, something that happened very often to me with Firefox.

2. Screen Real Estate
Another thing that a netbook lacks is pixels. My screen is 1024 pixels wide and 600 pixels high. Especially the lack of height is sometimes taxing. I have done a lot of things in Ubuntu to mitigate this problem (if you are interested I could write a post about that) and I had to do the same with Firefox.

In Firefox I used Tiny Menu, chose small icons, used no bookmarks and combined many toolbars into one to make sure that I have more content and less browser. To my surprise I had to do nothing with Chromium and still got a bigger canvas with a bigger font in the address bar! Compare the screenshots below to see the differences: 

 

Screenshot Firefox (click to enlarge)

Screenshot Firefox (click to enlarge)

Screenshot Chromium (click to enlarge)

Screenshot Chromium (click to enlarge)

 

Chromium shows more of the page and accomplishes this by doing a couple of smart things:

  • There is no status bar. I could have turned the status bar off in Firefox, but I need to see where a link is pointing to before I click on it. Chromium shows this information dynamically as soon as you hover over a link. When you don’t hover it shows nothing.
  • The tabs are moved into the title bar. It looks a bit weird for a while, but it uses some very valuable space.
  • Some things only appear when you need them. The bookmark bar, for example, only shows up when you open a new tab.

3. It is a fresh look at what a browser should/could be
Most of my time behind my computer is spent using a browser. More and more of the applications I use daily have moved into the cloud (e.g. mail and RSS reading). It is thus important to have a browser that is made to do exactly those functions.

The developers of Chromium have looked at all aspects of a traditional browser and have rethought how they work. A couple of examples:

  • The address bar is actually a tool with four functions. It contains your web history, typing some terms will execute a search in your default search engine (saving me two characters compared to how I search in Firefox), you can type a normal web address and you can use keywords to search. If I type w chromium in the address bar it will search for chromium in Wikipedia. The keyword search also works in Firefox, but Chromium has a prettier and more clear implementation.
  • When you open a new tab, you see a Dashboard of sites you use often (a variant of another Opera invention). That page also conveniently displays recently closed tabs with a link to your browsing history. The history page has excellent search (it is Google after all!) and has that simple Google look.
  • The downloads work in a particular way. They automatically save in a default location unless you tick a box confirming that you always like to open that type of file from now on. This takes a little getting used to (I like saving my downloads in different folders), but once again the download history is searchable and looks clean.

In conclusion: Chromium is a browser in which some hard choices were made. No compromises. That means that I, as a user, have to worry about less choices and settings and can focus on being more productive. Making tough interface design choices can be a very successful strategy: witness Apple’s iPod.

For now I will be using Chromium as my primary browser and will use Firefox when I need certain functionalities that only Firefox add-ons can provide.

I am looking forward to what the browser future holds!

How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be a Part of It

How Wikipedia Works

How Wikipedia Works

Kevin Kelly has written:

The Wikipedia is impossible, but here it is. It is one of those things impossible in theory, but possible in practice.

I couldn’t agree more: the scope of Wikipedia’s success is stupefying to me. The project can teach us many things about how we can utilise small inputs from many to create something grand.

Ayers, Matthews and Yates have written How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be a Part of It and made it a free cultural work by licensing it under the GNU Free Documentation License. The complete book is freely available online at http://howwikipediaworks.com/.

They have managed to truly deliver on both meanings of the title. The book gives an in-depth explanation of how Wikipedia literally works (i.e. the syntax, the software, categories, templates and more) and how it can work as a community based collaborative effort (through philosophies, guidelines, processes and policies).

After reading it, I now have a much better understanding of the project as a whole, including the other Wikimedia projects, while also understanding that there is much more to learn about the five pillars of Wikipedia which summarise Wikipedia as a website, a mission and a community:

The book is very valuable for educators. One of the best chapters outlines how to evaluate the quality of an article. By using different techniques, including looking at the history of a page, checking the backlinks to an article, taking account of the warning messages and verifying the sources, you can quickly judge the value of the information (for more on this see Researching with Wikipedia). Teaching students how to do this could push the discussion about allowing students to use Wikipedia as a source for research to another level. Even more interesting is make working on Wikipedia an assignment for your students. If I was teaching in tertiary education right now, I would be sure to do this. It will teach students more valuable skills than an essay only written for the professor’s eyes could ever do. There is group of Wikipedians happy to help and set up these kind of projects.

In short: read this book!

Finally two random (but Wikipedia related) links that I enjoyed and want to share with you:

  • Pediapress. A print on demand service for selections of Wikipedia articles. Create your own books by picking the articles you like to have in it and have it shipped to you for a very reasonable price. Selections by others are available through their catalogue. Try Educational Technology for example.
  • An interesting essay, found through the book, about avoiding instructional creep:

    The fundamental fallacy of instruction creep is thinking that people read extremely long, detailed instructions. What’s more, many bureaucracies also arise with the deliberate intent to be alternatives to regulations; this is almost always noticed by the other side, and tends to antagonize.

    Something to always stay aware of!

Learning 2008: Wrap up of day 1

I have already written two posts about the Learning 2008 conference. This last post about day one will just be some random things that I noticed and want to highlight:

  • The session on Mobile learning with industry leaders from Chrysler, Accenture, Microsoft and Merril Lynch was surprising to me. Mobile learning was mostly used by these companies to make their learning more efficient and thus drive down costs without losing effectiveness. Basically a matter of ROI. Existing learning materials and courses are converted into on- or offline materials for the Blackberry or Windows mobile. Their employees can then do some of the required business curriculum while they are on a plane, on the way to their car or while playing with their child (yep, that last example was actually used). They were after the holy grail of learning designers: design once and deploy everywhere. The problem with this is that they do not take the affordances of the mobile device into account. The fact that this is a cell phone which could be used for audio, that it is a communication tool that has rich possibilities (e.g. location awareness through GPS) was not taken into account. To me that is a shame.
  • Richard Culatta works for the CIA and gave a presentation titled: “Two Brains are better than one: Leveraging social networks for learning”.  He talked about a whole bunch of free tools which can be used for social learning. The CIA uses these tools in different ways (e.g. the Intellipedia, a Mediawiki implementation). What I liked about Richard’s presentation was his enthusiasm and his energy: he covered a lot of ground in a short time and was very interactive with the audience. Maybe because he is well aware of the concept of the attention economy. I wish all presenters would take the cost of my attention into account!
  • Wayne Hodgins is working with Erik Duval on a book about the Snowflake effect. His job title is “Strategic Futurist” and works from his sailing boat in which he sails around the world. He talked about how everybody is a snowflake, a metaphor for the uniqueness of everybody. Different music services (e.g. Pandora and Last.fm) already take this uniqueness into account. Why don’t we apply these principles to learning activities? Finally he talked about mashups as a generic concept. Why don’t we use the unique qualities of humans and mash them up when we create a project team?
  • Sue Gardner, the Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, talked about the Wikipedia in general, which is currently the number four website in the world. Masie asked her about how neutrality is ensured. Her idea is that transparency is the answer to everything. By being clear that someone thinks A, but somebody else thinks B, you actually add to knowledge and make things clear. The foundation will be working on improving the interface for editing articles which can be quite difficult for complex pages. They might also try to look at what they can do with video and audio, although we have to realise that they are not as easily collaborated with as with text. Masie wondered about students using information from the Wikipedia for their assignments. Is that something we should encourage while the information might not be correct? Sue answered by talking about the most accepting country for Wikipedia: Germany. Professors in Germany are starting to see it as their duty to make sure that Wikipedia is correct and updated.
  • Finally an interesting link: Learning for International NGO’s (Lingos).

On to day two!